Worlds apart yet still connected

Many years ago, I interviewed an elderly gentleman for an article on preservation and on meeting him, he was busy in his workshop straightening a pile of nails. I enquired as to why he was doing this, his reply was “There are 2 reasons why I do this, a) because the nails can be used again it’s recycling which saves money and b) it keeps my mind active and hands busy.” The old gentleman’s viewpoint has stayed with me ever since and I try to adopt the same directive reusing items for other purposes.

Now to the question: “Is there a connection between a microwave oven and bonsai?”

Probably the first reaction to the question is “What is this person talking about, how can there be a connection, they are worlds apart.” But if you read on you will see that a connection between these two entities does exist.

What is the most used item for styling a tree, it is ‘wire’ – aluminium for deciduous and the more expensive copper for conifers. Such wire is usually imported from the far east via bonsai outlets in the west and sold by gauge (in increments) 1mm to 6mm and weight for example, 50g or 100g packs.

As we are aware wire in various thicknesses is required to create branch bending in order to maintain the desired shape. With small gauge wire (1 to 1.5 mm) there is a substantial amount in one package (50g) that can last a long time, but as the gauge increases the length decreases. Moreover, the initial cost of purchasing a large selection of wire and delivery can be expensive depending on the supplier.

If one is a trader in bonsai or an instructor the cost of wire usage can usually be passed onto the customer or club where workshops take place, but for the novice/student or solo artist offsetting the cost cannot be done. Some of my students whom are extremely enthusiastic are as poor as church mice and denying them access to my wire stock, is a set back in their learning curve; hence a way had be found to accommodate their needs.

The solution came a few weeks ago when my microwave oven decided to retire, it was moved to the workshop in the hope that a repair could be facilitated. But after doing some research the advice given was “do not under any circumstances tamper with a microwave oven”. Because it has (1) a high voltage capacitor which can give very nasty surprises and (2) a magnetron, which has cancer causing beryllium oxide coatings if damaged. Nonetheless, having an inquisitive mind I took the the appliance apart to see how it worked.

HVC and magnetron

Inside the microwave is (3) a transformer with two large coils of reusable wire, which can be either all copper or a mixture of copper and aluminium, depending on the make, model and age.

Transformer

These transformers are comprised of several heavy steel sections held together by seams that run the length of the transformer indicated by the red arrows, these need to be separated and to do this the tools required are a hammer and bolster or masonry chisel.

Put the transformer on a flat hard surface seam side facing up and break them, the transformer will come apart, tap out the steel sections that go through the coils, then separate the coils and clean them of any unwanted debris.

You now have wire that you can use for bonsai which at most will have cost you 30 minutes from stripping out to wire retrieval. There is other copper wire in a microwave but it is either too thin or braided to be of any use in bonsai. Of course a microwave oven is not the only source for wire, other electrical appliances a washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator or air conditioner have transformers containing wire coils.

Another wire source is industrial electrical cable often coated in a polymer insulation which has to be removed, achieved either by manually stripping the cables through a jig or burnt off. But the latter causes problems because a) the coating produces smoke which contains halogens, dioxins and carbon monoxide that are hazardous to health. b) The wire has to be cleaned of any burnt residue and if copper, it may need to be re-annealed to make it pliable for use.

The microwave project was undertaken purely reclaim the copper/aluminium wire so that it could be used by my students during bonsai workshops, thus saving money and my own personal stock of wire. If you wish to try dismantling a microwave or other electrical appliance for its wire content, I urge you to err on the side of caution use gloves, face protection and tools that are insulated – be safe not sorry. Until next time, BW, N.

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